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Words and Music

We’ve commented frequently on this page on the central role that Israel has played and continues to play in shaping the common dreams and imaginings of American Jews. We’ve often taken note of the place that music plays in that seasoning process. We’ve recalled those anthemic Hebrew songs that have successfully crossed the ocean and, despite the language barrier, become integral parts of American Jews’ folk culture, defining our life-cycle celebrations, livening our holiday parties, even distracting us while the synagogue switchboard puts us on hold. We’ve noted the way in which such melodies float in and out of our collective imagination, reflecting the ebb and flow of our mood as a people and a faith community.

Usually, as it happens, we’ve been speaking of songs by Naomi Shemer.

Shemer, who died last weekend at age 74, was one of Israel’s most prolific songwriters, publishing hundreds of hit tunes in the course of a 45-year career. But she was much more than that. She composed an astonishing body of work that, simply put, defines Israel’s national subconscious. From the soaring imagery of “Jerusalem of Gold” to the bouncy, optimistic “Mahar” (“Tomorrow”) to the elegiac “Al Kol Eleh” (“Over all these keep watch, dear God”) to the giddy “My Soldier Came Back,” the songs she wrote year after year had an uncanny knack for saying precisely what was on Israelis’ minds.

Shemer’s pen was an extension of her heart, and she loved Israel, its landscape and its people. And, as this week’s national outpouring of grief and affection showed, Israelis loved her back.

To Jews in this country, Shemer was less familiar a personality, but her songs were, if anything, even more central in shaping our Jewish subconscious. Even those who consider themselves most distant from their ethnic heritage find themselves astonished to learn how much of their limited Israeli repertoire consists of Shemer songs.

The bonds that tie Jews around the world to one another and to Israel may be fraying and loosening, as the latest study from the Jewish Agency’s new think tank, reported on Page 2, seems to show. Jews in various countries tend to think and act more and more like their neighbors next door and less like their cousins around the world. But as long as there are shared dreams that we dream and tunes that we hum together, we will find a common language. And when we do, the words and music will probably be Naomi Shemer’s.

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